In February of this year, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” delivered its discussion of race — one that asserts that white liberals can often be as harmful as the film’s full-on medical horror — through the mass consumability of genre fare.
Ten months later, screenwriter Max Landis and director David Ayer’s “Bright” attempts a similar enterprise. The $90 million Netflix production starring Will Smith is, at face value, the very definition of popular entertainment, considering Netflix’s 100 million subscribers.
Smith plays Daryl Ward, a Los Angeles police officer with an orc partner, Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), who is the first orc in the department and is thus despised by Ward’s human peers. Ward and Jakoby become trapped in a battle for an all-powerful wand, a battle waged by LA gangs, corrupt police, moneyed elves and oppressed orcs.
Essentially, the film’s orcs are stand-ins for Black people. It’s an allegory that is itself problematic, and just in case the comparison wasn’t obvious enough, it is unrelentingly, uncomfortably telegraphed at every opportunity. Resultantly, Landis and Ayer don’t discuss race — now contextualized through a mashup of the buddy cop and fantasy genres — as much as they mumble vaguely about it.
In this sense, Landis and Ayer are clumsy magicians attempting a spell that will inevitably backfire. “Bright” might be a genre film about race, but it’s no “Get Out.” What is most bothersome about “Bright” is its utter disinterest in complexity.
Indeed, the biggest takeaway from “Bright” is that racism is wrong, a platitude that takes two long hours to develop and one that we didn’t need to hear from white filmmakers Landis and Ayer. Among other things we didn’t need to hear is the line, “Fairy lives don’t matter today.”
One wonders what nuance Landis expected to wring from lines such as these, of which there are too many to remember. Yet the film’s lack of nuance isn’t only limited to a few cringeworthy lines — it is built into the story itself, which doesn’t offer its characters compelling arcs as much as it denies them substantial growth.
In fact, there are very few positive representations of minoritized subjects in this film. The sole female protagonist, an elf who is capable of magic (Lucy Fry), exists narratively as a deus ex machina and nothing more. And in a world where centaurs can be cops, one wonders why the film’s street gangs have to be entirely Latinx.
In this sense, for all of the film’s supposed creativity, “Bright” is frustratingly shortsighted, nowhere more so than in its ending, which proves to be essentially a restaging of the finale of the 1958 Sidney Poitier buddy film “The Defiant Ones.”
The endings of both films are well-intentioned misfires, suggesting that loyalty and equality are the same thing, but both do so to a problematic and rather toxic degree. “Bright” appears unaware of the failings of that previous film, purporting its politics as progressive when they’re actually stuck in 1958. As James Baldwin said in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” speaking of “Native Son” and somewhat prophetically of “Bright,” “we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.”
Ironically, there are very few other thrills to be had in “Bright.” Car chases and shootouts abound, but they are literally, exceedingly and counterintuitively dim. Moreover, masters of action such as Steven Spielberg know to inform the audience of a set piece’s geography — watching goons get thrown out of windows is only fun if we knew there was a window in the first place.
Yet, David Ayer is not Spielberg. He is the director of “Suicide Squad,” which, for the record, is a better film than this one. Let that sink in. In Ayer’s hands, we don’t know the spatial relationships between characters as they shoot, stab and punch each other, rendering the film’s action as ineffective as its proselytizing.
Even if the action in “Bright” were coherent, it wouldn’t account for the film’s essential flaw. The message of “Bright” is ultimately trite, when it should be anything but. Yet one feels a defeated sense of inevitability — such is the case when white filmmakers attempt to tell stories that are not theirs to tell.
“Bright” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Harrison Tunggal is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].